Chris Robinson – “Untethered, Unbound” An Interview and a Record Review
Just over a month ago to the day saw the release of the latest Chris Robinson Brotherhood effort, Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel, on Silver Arrow. The record a stout eight songs deep clocking in at 13 minutes shy of an hour. The meld, a landscape of sonic brilliance, touching on just about every ‘genre’ the gang of four may have resounded to at the on start of their own musical awareness.
Shedding his black feathers for the crown of improvisational psych band deluxe, Robinson, virtuosic guitarist Neal Casal, Adam McDougall on all keyed instruments, and Tony Leone keeping time, have delved in deep on this offering. Richly lathered in the spirit of the Grateful Dead, the unending well of soul and r&b that resides deep inside Robinson’s soul, transient rock-n-roll, and just plain fun songwriting are the secret sauce to Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel. The addition of longtime Levon Helm compadre, as is Leone, Jeff Hill has been given the nod for touring duty on bass guitar for this run and hopefully the long term.
This, as I’ve said before, is where Robinson clearly feels at home in this ‘scene’, in this band, in this mindset. The songwriting mostly handled by Robinson and Casal saw new light with McDougall’s first co-write with Chris in the album opener, “Narcissus Soaking Wet”. A slowly building funked up number with a chorus to die for, handsomely reminding the listener of easily one of the best voices in rock history. The record itself is cloaked in '70s AM Gold, easily improvised vehicles of psychedelia, with a fresh and uplifting feel.
A genuine party for your ears with some of Robinson’s finest harp solos caught on tape and an overall vibe of solidarity in a vast melting pot of musical tastes and styles, no genre left untouched or scathed. It’s free game as long as it’s dreamt up by the CRB. Even an experimental jaunt into some drum and bass electronica with McDougall holding down the melody to Robinson’s inaudible vocals drenched in layers and layers of effects, would bode well in the discotheque and your favorite local live music venue. A welcoming point of non-contention and a far cry from the controlling and unfortunately ultra-corporatized stance he felt within the walls of all things Black Crowes. This here is a true Brotherhood of like-minded souls making the music they want for the people who want it. Be it 2 0r 20,000 in attendance CRB brings it in fine fashion. I’ve been a guest of the band twice in the past two years with both shows stellar -- even a choice Dead cover or two to cull my slightly under control obsession at this point.
I had the utmost luck and bucket list check off of catching up with Chris Robinson via a phone conversation whilst he gazed upon Vermont’s usually white tops and I the green foothill mountains of rural New Jersey. I had all intentions of taking quotes and making a fancy production about the whole conversation and putting into paragraphs and periods. After several listen backs and enlightenment to the CRB’s modus operandi, the conversation needed to be captured in typical interview format complete with full questions and answers. Without further verbosity, take a minute to read what one of the most definitive frontmen in rock-n-roll history is up to now and why I’m of the thought that this is where he ultimately wanted to be the entire time, making this music, with these people. Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel, ain’t that just grand:
SZ: You’ve spanned many a gap genre-wise in your career and clearly the Chris Robinson Brotherhood is a hash of all that, specifically the AM Gold, and Psych rock of the ‘70s, with an affinity for the Grateful Dead. Was that the idea behind the band or did it just sort of grow that way organically?
CR: I think the architecture of it is these songs, these images and melodies with the music. So it’s not the same blues based heavy Vox trip. That’s where it’s born, from that. I was sitting on these songs and Adam and I are compatriots in that sense, my subtext tends to be on the hokier side of things, so it’s like if we have dusty cowboy boots, instead of just ol’ plain Western dust it should be moon dust! Our initial concept was like you said, we love punk and electronic music and bluegrass, we’re into music, man, there’s no genre stopping us. We joked that we should sound like is Buck Owens and The Buckaroos if they sat in with Gong, or David Allan, how do we make our covered wagon have a warp drive to sort of go from these rootsier earthy elements to these interspace driven sort of things, and have it all be cloaked in something that again that were interested in. Roots music is the basis of where I come from, but as times goes on and your tastes change and you allow more things into your life, you custom fit your thing and just having that freedom to express yourself in a lot of different colors is unbelievable.
SZ: It’s almost an old school way of thought with genres and such since there's so much transcending anymore. I always blame over creative journalists who devise these sub-genres when in reality it's just folks playing with differnet sounds. That said, you’ve been there for the 'glory days' of the music business and then its basic demise to the current fiscal landscape. What’s your take on the state of music as a business?
CR: It starts with business, when you start to be able to make records to sell to black people, rural white people, you know, or immigrants. Genre specific stuff comes about through Capitalism, before we consider a corporate scenario it was called the music business. I play music, and then there’s people in the music business. I think people that can find a way to make money off of somebody only adds to that end. You’ll never have to convince someone who plays music to play music. Only rich people can make music now anyway and I’m sure they all have savvy parents, with lawyers at their disposal, I mean like “we knew it was a bad record deal but no one else gave a shit, what else are you gonna do?” sort of shit. It was a machine. It’s a system is what it is. If you’re in a town that’s not LA or NY and you like music and your friends are into some weird stuff and you want to write songs, you can start getting it together yourself. Make something happen yourself, don’t rely on a corporate machine that can only see you for what they can make you to make them more money. And that’s totally cool if you want to go that route and be in showbiz, but I’m just the type of person that got into music because it was something that couldn’t be manhandled or controlled, it was the closest thing to living your life by your own poetic nature in a romantic sense. Poetry wasn’t important to people in the ‘80s and it isn’t now, so what’s the closest thing. It was a way to travel and it’s about weirdos and scenes. Then all of a sudden, ka-ching, ka-ching, your life is different because your coin fit the right slot if you will. But underneath the whole trip there’s no problem with labels, and managers, and the band and all that, my problem is me. I’m just fucked up enough to have never thought I’d be savvy at my career. I’m not gonna be cavalier or ignorant about it, part of my life and where the CRB is now, this is a time and experience and wisdom and devotion. All of us are together in this band and we’re working hard at making music, writing these songs and making these recordings and making these decisions and playing these types of shows. We’re devoted to our muse and our muse dictates us. What if you were creeping around the woods and found this crystal clear spring, don’t confuse success from the outside looking in, true success lives within the work and whether you’re happy with the work and nothing more than that to the artist.
SZ- Are you having the most fun of your career with this band?
CR- I am. We play 115 shows, so that’s 3 hours a night, throw in some sound checks, and writing sessions, studio time and you start to see the hours spent with each other. We’re lucky because this is an exercise in trying to be here now as much as we can, to be in our moment and be present in our music. We don’t have a temple of nostalgia, we don’t have a temple of hit record and success that involves other people’s identities and emotions involved. We don’t have that cause CRB is completely born from another thing. Even our live experience is something different from day to day. We kind of have the loaded dice where we can change our vibrational realities by playing our music and doing our thing, by the way without having to be in the showbiz thing, with the light show, and the running around shaking hands, and the “Hello Cincinatti” kind of shit. We’re committed and it gets a little bigger every tour and we’re in no hurry. Our scene is hip because it’s small. If other people come it will still be hip and cool, but again we’ve done all this by keeping our heads down and focusing on the music and putting out our vibes. This is a scale and a pace that we’re all very happy with. We’re just overjoyed to be able to get on a stage and be able to play. We’ve always been deeply rooted in early ‘70s Herbie Hancock sort of era, again like I said that’s where our band started. Having piano on this record is a first for us. It’s an ever expanding palette and you get to utilize what you…we’re hunter gatherers we’re surviving off of what our environment gives us with this group of tunes and the specifics, everyone’s focused, we don’t sit around and listen to records and say. ‘oh we should have something like that’. At this point it all is one giant cauldron of stuff. Between us we’ve written hundreds and hundreds of songs, played thousands of gigs, and done hundreds and hundreds of sessions. When you’re 22 it’s like that but not when you’re 50. When guys have spent the last five years, eating, sleeping, playing, and living together on a bus, this is what you get. A place where hopefully your musical dialogue is dynamic and soulful and interesting, ultimately that’s what you’re looking for.
SZ- How do you bottleneck your creativity writing wise from a visceral undying Black Crowes song to a Chris Robinson Brotherhood arrangement?
CR- It’s not the same at all. The Crowes were way more precious and controlling as to what a Black Crowes song was supposed to be which to me was always really a bummer. This band anything goes! If you’ve heard our records there’s not a lot of conventional wisdom to the songwriting. On our first couple records I don’t think there’s a song under six or seven minutes. It is what it is, Donald Fagen said if a song isn’t six or seven minutes you can’t even get something going. I love Hank Williams too and Bob Dylan has some two minute songs and some eight minute songs, again it depends on what’s in those minutes that counts.
SZ- “Leave My Guitar Alone” is one of the best rock songs I’ve heard all year, is that you and Neal trading solos at the end? You seem truly comfortable and at home when you’re strapped into one of your Vox guitars, how’s that transition coming along? And how did Jerry Garcia’s famous ‘wolf’ guitar come out to play?
CR- That’s Neal, I’m just playing the rhythm but yeah, I wrote that song, and he took a lot of time doing those dueling solos over himself but it turned out rad and we couldn’t be happier with it. It’s like anything else I’ve been on stage with Jimmy Page through whoever, whatever, playing guitar I’m kind of coming up from the rear but I didn’t sit around playing Clapton licks at a young age which is a plus, I was writing melodies and lyrics, and producing records and stuff, but in the last five or six years I’ve been playing guitar daily and even the greatest guitar player in the world learns something new every time he plays so I’ll just step on the conveyor belt and take my knowledge as it comes and get into it. It’s about what you can do as far as expression and that’s all that’s really happening. A friend of mine has access to ‘wolf’ and brought it to the show one night. Neal was in heaven, we all were really. There’s magic in that thing.
SZ- You’ve mentioned tracking and writing this record as your best time ever doing so. Describe why.
CR- I just wanted to write songs. That’s what I wanted to do and I wanted to get out and play them with people who wanted to do something. It’s really just that simple. When all your shit comes together, be there. Be here now, in the moment. We work hard, we’re humbled to have the opportunity to go into a beautiful studio in a beautiful location and focus all of our energy on what we want to say with our music in an emotional and psychic and human level. You try your best whenever you have the opportunity to do that. It’s all about seizing and appreciating unique opportunities and not taking them for granted.
-Amen. Thanks for your time, Chris.